Shannon to Dublin pipeline faces watertight opposition

The final part in the series on the Irish Water project examines criticisms of the plans

 

Pick a river associated with regular flooding and it would seem like the perfect water source for a rapidly expanding capital city.

Select an extraction point that is already semi-industrialised, as in the Parteen Weir on the lower reaches of the river Shannon, and EU habitat and water directives are less likely to be an issue.

Compensate the landowners on the 170km pipeline route for a 20m permanent wayleave, and Irish Water should have an “ideal” €1.2 billion solution to Dublin’s long-term water needs.

The River Shannon Protection Alliance, a group of farming, stud, business and tourism interests, believes Irish Water is being misleading about raw water shortages in the east.

The alliance believes the focus should be on fixing leaks in Dublin’s distribution system.

It also believes Irish Water is being heavily influenced by the needs of industry, located on the east coast, in calculating that the greater Dublin and midlands area will require an additional 330 million litres of water a day by 2050.

Irish Water says its calculation is informed by an Industrial Development Authority (IDA) projection that industry will require a daily additional 100 million litres.

The utility has confirmed to this newspaper that one east coast multinational wants to increase its daily requirement from 10 million to 40 million litres a day.

Relieve flooding

Planner and former An Bord Pleanála inspector Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda believes Irish Water is remiss in ruling out an option which, he says, could both relieve flooding and save on the costs of treatment.

When Bord na Móna was bidding to run the new State water utility, it proposed extracting water from Lough Derg during heavy rainfall periods for storage in a reservoir built on a cutaway bog at Garryhinch, Co Offaly. The reservoir would double up as a summer “ecopark”.

Ó Gráda says it could be a “win/win solution” in allowing abstraction to coincide more closely with the flooding season, while having minimal impact on the boating season.

“The large scale of the storage is, of course, essential,” he says.

“In addition, wetlands storage offers an opportunity for some purifying to occur, thereby reducing the demand for chemical treatment downstream.

“Managed wetlands are an established means of small-scale sewage treatment, as for one-off houses.”

Irish Water’s contention that the Parteen basin option will have the least environmental impact among all 10 possibilities examined by it has been challenged by environmental scientist Dr William O’Connor.

The Shannon hydroelectricity scheme at Ardnacrusha was constructed in the 1920s, he points out, when there was no requirement for environmental impact assessment and no EU directives to meet.

Dr O’Connor, who runs the Ecofact consultancy in Limerick and formerly worked as a senior fisheries biologist with the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), says there is already an “unsustainable” water abstraction from the lower river Shannon special area of conservation (SAC) at the Parteen regulating weir-Ardnacrusha headrace.

Irish Water contends its extraction of four cubic metres per second (cumecs) of flow represents just 2 per cent of available water, and will have minimal impact on Ardnacrusha and no negative impact on the old river Shannon, the stretch of river between Parteen Weir and Limerick city.

Serious decline

However, Dr O’Connor says it is “misleading” to present four cumecs as 2 per cent of available water.

This water belongs in the old river Shannon and – regardless of what the ESB considers to be its entitlements – is required to restore the lower river Shannon SAC and restore the river’s fisheries, he says.

The old river Shannon, which is part of the lower river SAC, is in a state of “serious ecological decline” already, he says.

Hydroelectricity may have the perception of being “clean”, but he says he has documented the devastation it has caused to river habitats, including stocks of wild Atlantic salmon and eels, and believes it should be subject to regulation.

“On the Shannon the ESB – a commercial company – are the fisheries authority and are answerable to nobody,” he says.

It is an argument also made by farmers subject to flooding who have long maintained that the Shannon should have its own governing authority.

Some farmers involved in the Fight the Pipe campaign believe an alliance between Irish Water and the ESB on Shannon extraction is akin to a “deal with the devil”.

Dr O’Connor does not rule out Shannon water abstraction entirely, but believes Garryhinch is a better option, and says the “future requirements of sustainable water management on the lower river Shannon have to be fully provided for”.

Irish Water says it conducted hydrodynamic modelling and detailed ground investigation works at the Garryhinch site to see if such a raw water storage facility could be built without environmental and technical risk.

“The hydrodynamic modelling results show that even if three months’ storage could be built in Garryhinch, there would still be an impact to water residence time in Lough Derg (and therefore an impact to the overall health of the lake),” it says.

“The ground investigation works at the Garryhinch essentially showed that construction would be next to impossible due to a highly karstified bedrock and high water table,” it says, and adds that there would be a risk of transferring invasive species into river systems.

It argues raw water would still need to be treated, and it would limit supply to Dublin only, rather than to midland and Dublin communities under the Parteen basin option.

‘Dublin-centric’

Irish Water says it has ensured public consultation at every stage of its research and development, and it has been liaising with the Office of Public Works, which recently published a comprehensive set of flood-relief plans for public consultation.

It says it ruled out desalination of water from the Irish Sea for three reasons.

It says it is a “Dublin-centric” solution which will not provide for the wider commuter belt out to the midlands, and it has a greater carbon footprint due to the high energy use.

Thirdly, desalination is more expensive – at a projected €1.6 billion for construction and operation, compared to €1.2 billion for the Shannon to Dublin pipe, it says.

Conservation and fixing the leakage problems will be addressed, it says, but it argues that any expenditure on leakage below 20 per cent becomes “uneconomic”.

‘Profligate waste’

River Shannon Protection Alliance chairman Gerry Siney finds this extraordinary.

“By any arithmetic, Dublin is not short of raw water,” he says, adding that additional water entering its system from the Shannon would “suffer the same profligate waste” due to under-investment and neglect of delivery and treatment systems.

Public consultation on Irish Water’s “least constrained corridor” from Parteen to Peamount in Dublin has already closed, and it intends to publish its final route in September.

After further stakeholder engagement with bodies such as the ESB, Inland Fisheries Ireland and Waterways Ireland, it hopes to submit a strategic infrastructure application to An Bord Pleanála before the end of next year.

Under the Strategic Infrastructure Act, introduced by Fianna Fáil during the early stages of the controversial Corrib gas project, An Bord Pleanála can only consider the application in hand if it meets the requirements of the legislation.

Dr Ó Gráda accepts that this has pitfalls, especially if there is a compulsory purchase order (CPO) aspect to it.

“Once CPOs are involved, and habitat directive considerations, the Bord Pleanála inspector is confined to the route drawings and cannot look at alternatives,” he says.

“The developers bring in the barristers to make sure that the appeals board sticks to the law.”

For all that, Dr Ó Gráda believes third parties have “much more say” in planning applications in Ireland than in Britain.

This should improve further as a result of Ireland’s belated implementation of the Aarhus directive on access to environmental information, public participation in decision-making and justice.

Maynooth University climate scientist Dr Conor Murphy, who says Irish weather over the past 250 years has been characterised by more periods of drought than flooding , believes there has to be an integrated approach which takes into account holistic management of the unique Shannon waterway system.

He says he is not qualified to rule on options for additional water supply, but believes there is a need for “far more openness, transparency and genuine participation” by stakeholders in big infrastructural projects.

“Politics tends to win out over sustainable development in Ireland all the time,” Dr Murphy says.

“So leadership is very important, rather than forcing something through, as happened with Corrib gas in north Mayo.”